DIYdiy projects

diy project: salt + coffee watercolor technique

by Kate Pruitt

I’ve been painting ever since I was little, but somehow, watercolors never remained in my rotation for very long. It’s a shame because watercolor techniques can produce beautiful painterly effects, and some of my favorite artists these days work in the medium. Luckily, this watercolor tutorial from Michelle requires no previous experience; it uses simple household materials like coffee and salt to create cool visual effects in the application of the paint. Not only are you learning how to make an original piece of art, but you can also use Michelle’s technique to give maps, prints and paper of all kinds an unusual, antique look. Thanks for sharing, Michelle! — Kate

Read the full how-to after the jump!


  • freshly brewed espresso
  • cobalt blue watercolour paint
  • 140wt coldpress watercolour paper
  • watercolour brushes (one wide for washes & one thin for strokes)
  • white drafting eraser
  • pencil
  • water
  • sea salt
  • masking tape
  • brown ink pen
  • tracing paper (optional)


1. Make yourself two Americanos — shouldn’t every project begin this way?! One for you, and one for the project. Alternatively, strong brewed coffee or even tea will work.

2. While one espresso cools, assemble the rest of your materials: a small cup of water and a pinch or two of salt. Rule out your paper to 8″ by 10″ and tape the edges with art tape (or low-tack blue painter’s tape).
3. Begin painting a region of the paper using the espresso. Alternate with brush strokes of pure water. It’s okay to have small areas of puddling because when you add the salt, it will absorb some of the liquid, but don’t go overboard. See below for an example:
4. While the region is still damp, gently sprinkle on salt crystals.
5. Continue until the entire paper is covered.
6. Let dry for several hours to overnight. The salt crystals will absorb the liquid around them, creating variations in the color on the paper and giving the piece an antique-map feel. This is also a great technique for aging any kind of print or pre-made map.
7. Use Google Earth to find your favourite place on earth! Sketch lightly on your paper free-handed (or if desired, print out, trace and transfer to your paper). Don’t worry about the pencil — a good white eraser will pull up any stray pencil marks!
8. Fill in oceans with blue watercolour.
9. Hand-letter your favourite travel quote underneath.

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  • Looks great. How did you seemingly suspend the picture in the frame and then hang the frame to the wall without wire showing?

  • WOW! This is totally cool and totally something I never would have known how to do ever! I would love to try this out and make an old map with/for my daughter — maybe a pirate map or map of Fairyland….Thanks for the RAD IDEA!!!

  • Hi Jill:
    I used a “floating frame” by which the artwork is sandwiched between two panes of glass….the hardware is behind the top strip of wood – hidden from sight =)

  • is there a way to easily print this (or any of your recipes)? I don’t want the whole article just the ‘how to’ and ingredient parts.

    • barbara

      the print apps don’t work with our custom blog layout, but you can easily just select the text you want, right click and hit “print”


  • Love this! I’ve always wanted to buy a frame like that with a floating work of art in the middle. Now that you’ve shown us how to do it, I’d like to try it myself! :)

  • What a great idea! I would never have thought to try the salt technique with espresso coffee, going to have to try it with my kids and then draw up some treasure maps, I think!

  • Maybe even we non-artists could do art with this technique. My cartography background is calling!

  • Maybe even we non-artists could do art with this technique. My inner cartographer is calling!

  • Another AH HA moment! I picked up some world atlas books while yard “sailing” this summer with the intention of using maps as wallpaper. I’ll bet I can get some great effects with this! Thanks.

  • We always used to do this with my grandma (an artist) when I was young. Love this craft and how it is bringing back such lovely memories!

  • Why did you tape the edges of the paper in the first steps? At the end, the entire paper seems covered with “coffee staining” technique.

  • @ Brittany – I will double check what exact shade we used =) We used the same colour, in a matte and satin finish =D

    @ Irina – I used tape on the edges so that the coffee wouldn’t accidentally “leak” off the paper…(and the white border looks nice if you want to frame it traditionally!) Since I opted for the floating frame instead, I went ahead and trimmed it (I think the rough edges look more interesting =)

  • Love this idea! I have recently taken up watercolor painting and I am always looking for new projects to try out…this one is perfect!

  • What a great project idea! I bet kids could get in on this!

    This would be the ONLY reason I’d either NOT drink my tea, or buy coffee. I’m NOT a coffee person!

  • How do you create that light, faded effect for the ocean. I bought Cobalt blue watercolor paint, but I have never worked with watercolors before. Is there some mixing or painting technique I should work on? On my first attempt it was just one solid, dark blue blob.

  • @Steven – Hooray! I’m glad you have decided to give watercolours a try! It sounds as though your cobalt blue is too intense….If you make the blue colour very transluscent (by adding alot of water to a very small amount of pigment) then the coffee will show through. Also while the faint blue is still wet, you can also drop in a bit of the stronger colour to add more variation….hope that helps!!!

  • @Michelle – Thank you so much for your tips!! I gave it a second try and it came out perfectly. I have always been fascinated with space and wanted to get some old school astronomy maps but never had much luck. This project inspired me to just go ahead and make my own. I already found images online of historic German maps of the solar system and Earth’s orbit that I am going to replicate using these techniques. Thanks again!!!

  • Hi, i really want to try this wonderful DIY Project but i am a little confused at what you were saying when you said “Begin painting a region of the paper using the espresso. Alternate with brush strokes of pure water.” Are you supposed to paint a stroke of espresso and than paint over it with water right after? if you could explain i would greatly appreciate it!!

    • Hi Annie,

      Yes, you have it right! You want to paint some espresso on, and then add a little more water to it afterwards to lighten and spread the color around, so it doesn’t get too dark. But you don’t want to add too much water, so I recommend just use a damp brush, not a dripping one. Hope this clarifies, but watercolors can really vary, so the best idea is to practice a little on a scrap piece to get the feel of it…good luck!

  • @Kate Pruitt
    Thankyou so much!! i can NOT wait to try this!! that totally makes sense now.

  • I showed it to my students yesterday and they were thrilled. Thatnks so much for sharing!

  • Very beautiful! How did you keep the circle “earth” whiter than the surrounding paper? I am just starting to play with wataercolors and need something like this to give me the confidence to pursue!

  • Do you think this technique would work on canvas? I’m making a large world map on a canvas drop cloth for my new apartment, and think this would give the canvas a lot of character.

  • This is very nice and I like the framing as well. I have been using coffee in my watercolors for a long time- ever since I discovered it worked perfectly as the fur color of my dog. I like how it made the paper look “old”

  • Your technique is very nice! I don’t mean to be rude, but I was a little taken aback by the china in your pic. Hope it was only for show…that “china” is around 120-130 yrs old and is highly prized these days.

      • Salt and coffee will not hurt that beautiful china. I love when people use and enjoy their antiques.

  • I have used instant coffee to paint with. The all sorts of effects can happen depending on the amount of water you use. You don’t need to boil water. It will dissolve in cold water. At the grocery or dollar store you can find little tubes of instant coffee. I like using them because they are easy to transport. I keep them in my “watercolor case”. I use a brush and I have used my fingers. It can be thick enough to use a knife to spread. And, boy do your paintings smell good!! Have fun. Try something new!

  • wonderful and beautiful creativity., can’t wait to try it, do you use à fixative spray before framing ? Thank you